Excellent story today by Farrah Tomazin in the Sunday Age
Denis Napthine was on his way to Melbourne's outer south-east for a school announcement this month, but things didn't quite go according to plan.
It was meant to be an easy gig: pledge an upgrade worth $12 million; talk up the value of education; smile for the cameras and be on your way.
But before the premier and his education minister had even reached the gates of Cranbourne Secondary College, assistant principal Neil Williams was on ABC radio with Jon Faine, revealing an uncomfortable truth.
Illustration: Matt Davidson.
The upgrade Napthine was about to unveil had actually been pledged by Labor in 2010 – only to be shelved once the Coalition won government, Williams explained. Now, almost four years later, it was back on the agenda. "There must be an election in the air, Jon," he quipped.
Williams' cynicism was hardly surprising given the government's education credentials haven't exactly shone since coming to office.
Despite boasting "record funding", Victorian schools still receive less per student than any other state or territory, and less than the national average. Government cuts – to regional offices, to literacy and numeracy coaches, or to vital programs such as Reading Recovery – have compounded frustrations. And even the much-hyped Better Schools funding deal, which was designed to bridge some of the longstanding gaps, remains a mystery for anyone trying to track how the cash is flowing. As one school principal recently asked: "Where's the Gonski money?"
Having done the bare minimum to genuinely advance Victoria's 1635 public schools, the Coalition is now embarking on a bricks-and-mortar bidding war with Labor in a bid to catch up ahead of November's poll.
As Tomazin states investment in bricks and mortar is always welcome, perhaps it's time to reframe the debate. If both sides of politics devoted as much time as they do talking about infrastructure to coming up with policies that improve the breadth of the curriculum, tackle student inequality especially in rural Victoria, and give teachers the support they need, schools may be less despairing. These days, principals use words like "abandoned" and "isolated" to describe their relationship with the Education Department. It's hardly a ringing endorsement.
Part of the tension stems from the Coalition's ludicrous autonomy agenda, which has redefined education by moving away from the "top-down" approach of previous governments. On one hand, this is a good thing: the thinking is that by providing schools with the independence they need to collaborate with others or respond to their local communities, the performance of the system will improve overall.
But principals say they don't just need more independence – they need the assistance and resources to match. Without it, the notion of "autonomy" seems like a paltry excuse for schools to do more with less, while the government abrogates its own responsibilities.
So far, the right balance has not been struck. Schools are increasingly being required to take on things that used to be done (or paid for) by the department. Being given education data for our Local Government Area and being expected to gain insights from that at a recent Regional Directors meeting is a classic example of this. Schools don't function within LGAs. That big picture data should be unpacked and responded too at a regional level....oh yeah that's right the regions were cut back and merged. there is nobody in the regions to look at the big picture. It is scandalous that NOTHING has been done over the last 4 years to close the gap between the educational opportunities and performance of rural students compared to metro students. that gap is widening. where is DEECDs and the government's response to the auditor generals report into that? Nowhere!
It is all about cost cutting- pure and simple!
The recent distraction from the funding debacle for state education comes in the form of the recent 16 million funding deal with the Abbott government for greater school autonomy!
Victoria and the Canberra have signed an agreement giving schools access to new funding over the next four years if they undertake a range of activities designed to make them more self-governing and accountable for their results.
The deal forms part of Tony Abbott's election pitch to create at least 1500 "independent public schools" by 2017. Unlike Western Australia, where the idea was pioneered, Victorian schools will not be formally rebadged as independent public schools but will still get money for a range of targeted activities: training staff to "assume greater decision-making powers" over teachers; giving schools extra authority to select principals; merging school councils into federated boards.
The government argues the deal will simply allow schools to "build capacity" and take advantage of the independence already available to them. Not surprisingly, critics fear it will exacerbate the gaps in education and lead schools down the path of privatisation by stealth.